The secret handshake….

I write this morning from the warm confines of the KLM Elite lounge at Birmingham Intl airport. Perhaps the only perk of spending so much time traveling is that, every once in a while, the airlines throw you a tiny little biscuit, such as being able to use the posh lounge for free…. It’s actually a bit grim in here, but at least I’m not with the general public.. 🙂

Of course my presence here indicates that I’m en route to America. Although the blog does not entirely reflect this, my main project this week has been trying to become a cellist again in time for a recital on Friday. I recorded a good chunk of the program yesterday and was fairly encouraged- although the fireworks (Guy Fawkes Night has been expanded to Murder, Mayhem, Vandalism and Pointless Explosions Month) outside made an interesting backing track to the slow movement of the Rachmaninoff sonata. My back has more or less stopped hurting, unless I lean or sit wrong, when it flares up full blast. I feel like if I can get through a flight and two hard days practice without making the back mad, I can pull this thing off….

On the ride up this morning from Cardiff to Birmingham, I tried to be a good boy scout and listen to all my Rach recordings. More and more, when I listen outside the box to certain cello discs that are not on my list of favorite players, I’m brought back, in a somewhat bad way, to memories of music school, and the strange subcultures that are American instrumental studios.

In a few of the performances, I found annoying evidence of what I’ve come to think of as “secret handshake” performance. A “secret handshake  performance” is one that is held by some to be work of genius, but for reasons you would only know if you knew the secret handshake. Perhaps some of you will remember the experience of preparing a piece for a lesson or a class only to be told you were doing everything completely wrong. The basis for this, as well as the reasoning for what was therefore “right” always seemed something you only knew if you knew the secret handshake (or owned the great man’s recording).

You see, in this mindset, any fool can buy the music and study the score and practice the part. If that were all there were to it, anyone could play music, and we wouldn’t need the genius teacher.

But, in the world of the secret handshake, there is an unknown collection of laws of aesthetics that you can only learn slowly, over many years, for at least $100/hour (which is a bargain for a good lesson). The lesson goes like this “Yes, I see you’ve started on a down bow on the A string…”

“Yes sir, that was what was in the score, the urtext….”

“Yes, but you see Ken… that down bow on the A string is too bright!” Too bright for what, one might think…. “You must start up bow on the D string!”

“Of course, sir…”

“And…. Here! What were you doing! You sped up!”

Hmmm…. isn’t that what accelerando means???? The wise student doesn’t ask.

“You must take time here!”

Time for what, one might ask!

“Like this!”

Aha…. Well it must be better because he’s teaching at ______________. How could I not know that? God, I’m a moron!
The onslaught begins in earnest. “Here! What were you doing?!?!?! You must play louder, louder, then softer! You can’t do all those pianos in the first movement! They don’t work, but in the second movement, you must play softer, it’s too loud!” And then there’s the long withering look, as if you were a bit of stray matter stuck to their shoe that seems to say, “you obviously didn’t listen to my recording…””

Too loud for what? Why don’t the pianos work?

Well, now I know the pianos don’t work because they’re not loud, and the fortes don’t work because they’re not piano, because there has to be a mystery to the great performer. There has to be something that only the truly blessed, the chosen, know about how to perform. At this school, it’s one set of rules, but at that one it’s another!

Then you hear the recordings of the “great teacher,” and you’re left scratching your head… Older and wiser you can’t help but feel that the last thing Rachmaninoff or Beethoven really wanted to do was mark the exact opposite what he wanted. Of course, in the world of the secret handshake, the piddling wishes of the poor composer are to be ignored at all costs.

“Well of course! Ken! You can’t take it so literally- he was a composer. A composer . Composers don’t understand performance, they don’t know how the piano really works or the cello really works, or where you have to take time. If you don’t take time where you have to take time, it doesn’t work, because it’s  not time-takey enough….” Yes, those poor composers ala Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. What a pity they understood so little about performance….

Thank god for the teachers who are secure enough to tell you the truth- that there is no secret handshake, and that you don’t need a guru to rewrite the masters for you. Pity they’re too often not the most famous in their field….

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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1 comment on “The secret handshake….”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    A very interesting post with a nice trackback is here

    “That sums up so much of the teaching I heard in years of accompanying violin, cello, and voice lessons taught by important pedagogues. IT JUST ISN’T DONE! Obviously, it can seem silly to say that one shouldn’t follow Schumann’s clear directions because the cultural consensus is that it’s better another way, but this kind of teaching is, for better or worse, an essential part of the classical tradition. Actually, Kenneth Woods recently took an excellent look at the negative side of this “secret handshake” way of teaching, and I agree with a lot of what he says. In fact, I agree too much because, as a teacher, my biggest fault is that I don’t like to impose my will on students. Even when a student plays a wrong note, there’s often a voice inside saying, “maybe he really feels it that way.” Still, this opinionated, intuitive approach to music-making is an inescapable part of the music world – and part of me knows that my happiest musical memories have had to do not with worrying about what makes Beethoven relevant, but with being exposed to the evangelical zeal of the true believers who never worry about such silly questions.”

    Cheers to Michael Monroe for the link

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